“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These words were written by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 and hold a special meaning, especially today.
Gathered in a room at the United Steelworkers Hall on the eve of International Human Rights Day, people came to hear Benamar Benatta speak. Born in Algeria, Benatta, a 35-year-old aeronautical engineer, was handed over to U.S. authorities by Canadian officials just one day after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre.
He originally left Algeria when he was 27 years old to seek political asylum in the U.S. fearing persecution, imprisonment and torture in his homeland. A lieutenant in the Algerian army, Benatta deserted after refusing to follow orders he felt were crimes against humanity.
Soon after arriving in the U.S., Benatta decided to make his way to Canada hoping for a better life. He strongly believed Canada would be fair in assessing his political refugee status claim.
He arrived in Canada on September 5, 2001 and claimed political asylum. He was being held in Niagara Falls for what he thought was time needed to review his claim. On September 12, only seven days after arriving at the border, Canadian authorities handcuffed Benatta and, in the middle of the night, transported him to the U.S.
What followed was five years of abuse and torture, Benatta alleges. First charged by the U.S. authorities as one of the original suspects in the September 11th attacks, Benatta was cleared of those charges three months later. He was then charged for carrying false identity papers and his case was further delayed.
He was released and returned to Canada in 2006. Benatta and his lawyer are asking the Canadian government to open an investigation into his case.
Benatta’s lawyer, Nicole Chrolavicius, said Benatta has been asking for three things since his ordeal began: answers to why Canadian authorities handed him over, redress for his pain and suffering, and policy changes to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future.
“Ideally we’d like for the Canadian government to grant these things voluntarily but if we have to get these three things through a legal process than we’ll do that,” Chrolavicius said.
Marina Nemat, author of the international best seller, Prisoner of Tehran…a memoir, was also at the Steelworker’s Union Hall to support Benatta’s plea. She was imprisoned in Iran when she was 16 years old where she said she was tortured and abused.
“It just makes my blood boil that the Canadian government denies this (what happened to Benatta) ever happened,” Nemat said. “When you are a victim of torture, denial is the last thing you want. It is worse than the actual torture.”
She says that cases such as Benatta’s and Maher Arar’s have tarnished Canada’s reputation of as a peacekeeping nation and she really worries about the direction Canada is heading in the world stage.
“If you ask any Canadian on the street, they’ll tell you that we are a human rights-minded nation. But all of these things that are happening cut at the fabric of what it means to be Canadian,” Chrolavicius said.
Benatta has been free for three years now and is doing the best he can to rebuild his life in Canada. He has been granted political refugee status and is hopeful that the government will open an investigation into his case and give him the answers he’s looking for.
“It is very easy to take someone’s rights away but it is always hard to get justice back,” he said. “You just have to be hopeful because justice will always be served in the end.”